Posted by: rcottrill | December 21, 2011

Holy, Holy, Holy

Words: Reginald Heber (b. Apr. 21, 1783; d. Apr. 3, 1826)
Music: Nicaea, by John Bacchus Dykes (b. Mar. 10. 1823; d. Jan. 22. 1876)

Wordwise Hymns
The Cyber Hymnal

Note: Reginald Heber’s hymn was first published in 1826, the year of his death. Notable English poet, Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892) considered this the finest hymn ever written. Without much question it is the best of our hymns on the Trinity. It continues in common use nearly two centuries after it was written. Some congregations sing it every Sunday.

There is a historical note related to the tune Nicaea as well. Considered by many to be Dykes’ finest hymn tune, it is named after the Council of Nicaea (A.D. 325), attended by more than three hundred bishops of the early church. There they wrestled with Arianism and the denial of the full deity of Christ. Arius said Christ was a created being, but Athanasius argued that if He were less than God He could not be our Saviour. Young Athanasius (about twenty-five years old at the time) ably defended Trinitarian doctrine, earning him the reputation of being one of the giants of church history. It is fitting that the tune for a hymn praising the triune God should be named Nicaea.

The inspiration for the hymn comes mainly from Revelation chapters 4 and 5. As reflected in CH-1, the Apostle John describes seeing four living creatures around the throne of God (likely cherubim) who declare, day and night, “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!” (Rev. 4:8). The praising of God “early in the morning” comes perhaps from Psalm 63:1 or Isaiah 26:9.

CH-1) Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty!
Early in the morning our song shall rise to Thee;
Holy, holy, holy, merciful and mighty!
God in three Persons, blessèd Trinity!

Casting golden crowns before the throne of God, and the “glassy sea” around the throne (CH-2) are described in Revelation 4:6,  9-10. The darkness that hides the majestic glory of God (CH-3) was experienced by Moses at Mount Sinai (Exod. 20:21). The holiness of God is so absolute that none can compare with Him. Therefore, it can be said, “only Thou art holy” (cf. Rev. 15:4).

CH-2) Holy, holy, holy! All the saints adore Thee,
Casting down their golden crowns around the glassy sea;
Cherubim and seraphim falling down before Thee,
Which wert, and art, and evermore shall be.

CH-3) Holy, holy, holy! though the darkness hide Thee,
Though the eye of sinful man Thy glory may not see;
Only Thou art holy; there is none beside Thee,
Perfect in power, in love, and purity.

All that God has done and will yet do can only bring more glory to Him. “All Your works shall praise You, O LORD” (Ps. 145:10; cf. CH-4). “And every creature which is in heaven and on the earth and under the earth and such as are in the sea, and all that are in them, I heard saying: ‘Blessing and honour and glory and power be to Him who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb, forever and ever!’” (Rev. 5:13).

CH-4) Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty!
All Thy works shall praise Thy name, in earth, and sky, and sea;
Holy, holy, holy; merciful and mighty!
God in three Persons, blessèd Trinity!

1) Compare the best of our attempts to praise God here and now, with what we can expect in heaven. What will be some of the differences?

2) Various “crowns” are spoken of in the New Testament–rewards for faithful service, for suffering for the cause of Christ, and so on (cf. I Cor. 9:24-27; Jas. 1:2-3, 12). What is the significance of these crowns being cast before the throne of God (Rev. 4:10-11)?

Wordwise Hymns
The Cyber Hymnal


  1. Psalm 5:3 might also be the source of the “early in the morning” phrase

    • Maybe. It’s a phrase or a thought that comes up a number of times (cf. Ps. 88:13). Thanks for contributing.

  2. “Holy, Holy, Holy” has always been my favorite hymn. After my father passed last year, I found out it was also his favorite. We sung it a his Celebration of Life service. I agree with Tennyson, it is the finest hymn ever written. “Crossing The Bar” was the verse I had the funeral home put on the cards we passed out at Dad’s service.

  3. Brother, I have been using some of your articles to educate our church on the hymns of the faith and their importance! I’d like to thank you for your diligence and faithfulness to this cause.

    On this particular one there seems to be a slight error. You mention “Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!” (Rev. 4:5). My Bible lists that as Rev 4:8.

    Thank you so much for your wonderful work! Keep it up. Lord bless you and keep you.

    In Christ,

    • You have a good eye! Correction made. And thanks for your encouraging words. God bless.


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